Two Against Alaska
I blurted, a little too loudly, prompting Amy to remind me, in a firm yet sympathetic whisper, that profanity outside of New York City is actually profane. She was right to shush me, of course, but I didn't relish the thought of suppressing half of my vocabulary while my skull was splitting in two. My often foul-mouthed wife, being more polite than I, adjusted quite readily and with little effort. For my part, I had already consciously and carefully purged some of my favorite words from my verbal repertoire to prepare for our upcoming vacation among the proper commoners. Gone were some of my closest lingual friends. Goodbye, "motherfucker." Goodbye, "shit." And "cunt"? You didn't even make it onto the plane.
The pain arrived at the tail end of the first of two flights, nine hours total: 5:45 a.m. out of Newark to Minneapolis; then Minneapolis to Anchorage. The early-morning flight had already proven rough, and our cloudtime was to be followed by a three-hour bus ride to Seward, AK, our port of departure for an eight-day cruise to Vancouver aboard the Mercury, currently the proudest tin can in the Celebrity Cruises fleet. And what a tin can: less than two years old, weighing in at some 77,000 tons, about as tall as a 70-story building on its side and carrying a crew of 900 offering twice as many guests all the amenities of your better metropolitan hotels. This certainly wasn't the worst way for us to travel through America's last wilderness.
The cruise was a gift from her parents, Gerald and Barbara, for our one-year anniversary. The honeymoon we never had. And the devil's price to be paid for such generosity? They were coming with us. But our only obligation to them was dinner: dine with them each evening and we'd be on our own for the rest of the trip. That, of course, turned out to be something of a misleading promise, since there's nowhere to go and nothing much to do on a fucking cruise ship. So we scheduled shore excursions at each of four stops along the way, and invited them to join us for two of them?our gesture of affection and gratitude.
Living on the Mercury for a week wasn't unlike a stay in a classy hotel catering to an international clientele (though a solid 99 percent of our fellow passengers were American, and at least half of those seemed to be from New Jersey). The cruise planners took pains to promote a high-society atmosphere, as exhibited, for instance, by the requirement that guests attend two of the seven dinners in formal attire and two others in semiformal, with only the first, last and one other night allowing casual dress. There were half a dozen upscale gift shops, a decent casino and eight bars that downplayed the beer and by-the-glass selection and, instead, pushed $60 bottles of wine and $100 champagne. All of which we were prepared for: We'd brought suits and dresses, shiny shoes and enough surplus cash to drop on some shopping, a little gambling and a lot of champagne. What we hadn't prepared for was the talking.
We are generally quiet and reserved among strangers in the city. We consider distance an acceptable substitute for kindness, and we demonstrate respect for others by respecting their physical and audial space. When we travel, we almost always travel alone. At home, we spend most of our spare time with each other, some of our few close friends or, more often than not, with our dog. Yet there we were, captive in a finite, essentially closed space with some 1800 strangers. If these strangers had kept their traps shut, there'd be nothing much to tell. But, instead, they all wanted to be our friends. Whether or not we were capable of reciprocating in kind was the jackpot question of our first day on board.
At dinner on the first night, we were surprised to find ourselves at a table with my in-laws and four strangers. Who the fuck were these people? And why were they extending their hands to us over the appetizers? Fortunately, Amy's father is more like the other 1800 chatterboxes on board: He's a talker. He's more than just willing?he's eager?to engage in chitchat with strangers. We soon found that talking is one of the ship's activities, much like shuffleboard, buying duty-free booze and blowing $20 a day on bingo. Amy and I are not talkers. One of the reasons we agreed to the cruise was the promise of time alone, something of a rarity for two full-timing New Yorkers. Everyone else, though, wanted to talk. And talk some more. And then hey, why don't we meet up for lunch tomorrow, so we can, oh, talk?
Cruise talk is weird, a mutation of small-talk indigenous to vacationeers and retirees who live year-round in resort areas. It took me several exchanges to identify and understand its rhythm. The first invariably revolves around the trip to the boat: "What airline did you fly in on?"; "What connections?"; and, "Isn't that jet lag just the worst?" The second conversation?there's always a second conversation, because you sit at the same dinner table with the same people throughout the trip?centers around previous cruise experiences and the current ship's comparable amenities. (Everyone, it seemed, was a cruise veteran.) Then it's on to family, hometowns, shore excursions and shopping. Job talk was the trump card, reserved for familiar conversationalists, a confusing flip-flop since one's job is usually the first card played in Manhattan. But this was understandable, if only in hindsight: For that minority of passengers not retired, this was a vacation, and most people avoided discussing their real lives.
This evolution played out time and again, with several different groups of people, of all ages and each from different parts of the country. For the few days, I feared my head would explode from being filled with the same crap over and over again. Of course you came through Minneapolis; everyone on Northwest came through Minneapolis. Yes, the bus ride was terribly long; next time, why not take Alaskan Air directly into Seward? And no, for chrissakes, I haven't quite gotten accustomed to the fucking time difference.
The Nun Twins were the first of our fellow passengers to be visibly awkward with us. They also inadvertently taught us our first lesson with the stewards in the buffet dining area (who take the ladies' trays and find seats for them): If you don't want to be seated with strangers, don't let Miguel take your woman's tray. The stewards' mandate, it seemed, was to forcibly mix and mingle the guests. Our first time out, we drew a matching pair of 70-plus white-hairs wearing matching crucifixes, sitting side by side sipping decaf. They were visibly displeased with the quality of guests they'd drawn. Why, Jesus, had their morning coffee been interrupted by this 30-year-old unshaven guy with bags under his eyes and his surly Jew wife? Any one of the many pairs of bright-eyed Christian parents would've been more appropriate. Needless to say, they didn't stay for refills.
Our first nice conversation followed, at the next meal. (By the way, the ship's itinerary was defined by various feedings. At no point could a guest conceivably go hungry, with each day bookended by the 7 a.m. breakfast and midnight buffet, itself a tangential topic of dinner conversation among the more gluttonous guests. Room service was also available 24-7 for those room-bound with the much-publicized Alaskan flu, for the lazy or for drinkers returning to their cabins in the wee hours.) Richard and Rhea from Clearwater were placed next to us at lunch, much as we had been seated with the Nun Twins. This was our second day. We'd grown comfortable with the environment and, I think, had resigned ourselves to the inevitability of friendliness, so when they introduced themselves, we actually took the bait and spoke throughout the meal. Apropos of having had only one conversation, all I know about Richard and Rhea is their hometown (Clearwater, FL), that they're leaving directly out of Vancouver and that she handles the jet lag better than he does. Then we went about our respective business.
Amy and I were odd ducks among most of the passengers. This is not a statement of misguided misfitism, but a somewhat ironic statement of fact, considering our plain-Janeness on the streets of Manhattan. Besides the basic truth that 99 percent of the passengers were fair-haired Christians and my Semitic wife is, um, not, we were also one of only four or five pre-kid married couples. The few honeymooners on board had, presumably, survived or divorced their first spouses: They were much older. The other anniversary trippers were exchanging pearls and rubies, not paper like us. There were some families, sure?at least five or six dozen kids who ran wild in the pool area and played like all kids-turned-hooligans in any hotel in the world?but we constituted most of the middle ground. If we'd insisted on hanging out with other 20-somes, we would've ended up below deck drinking beer and playing pingpong with the staff.
Despite our best, mostly unintentional, efforts to remain aloof, on our second day we actually made some friends during a whitewater rafting trip in Juneau. There had been about 50 of us on the bus?Mercury cruisers all?a fair cross section of the passenger population: mostly sixty-plussers, some in their fifties, a few kids and us, the only reps for 28-to-30-year-olds in sight. The lead guide, a New Englander named Brian who earns his living six months at a time as a river guide in all parts of the world, wisely put us on his raft, the only one requiring passengers to paddle. So Bubba and Jane (Corpus Christi), Ernie, Maureen and their teenage daughter Kimberly (Florida) and Bruce, Sandy, their teen daughter Lindsey, sister Maureen and mother Jeanne (Chicago), took on the class-3 rapids with enthusiastic vigor and met our small-talk obligations along the way.
After the two-hour trip, everyone met for a few 3 p.m. pints at the Red Dog Saloon, a Juneau bar catering to tourists during the day and locals at night. We'd not only found a group of young-enough people (in spirit, if not in the books), but they also drank. And drank. We spent the next few nights either bumping into them and grabbing a quick one together, or actually seeking them out for even later nights of drinking and talking. Turns out, I haven't forgotten how to be friendly after all. Maybe it is nurture.
The next few days were spent alternately on boat tours and strolling around the tiny towns of Alaska's lower coastline. By the fifth day, we were passing people on the ship and greeting them by name. We gave the kid who took and sold the posed photographs a $10 bottle of wine in exchange for "losing" some $80 worth of pictures. (In an amazing coincidence, we ran into him at a coffee shop in Vancouver on the afternoon after disembarkation. Turns out he'd been dismissed for having a bad attitude: He refused to dress up in the bear costume and pose with passengers. The cruise line dropped him off with a ticket home to London. Leave it to us to befriend the disgruntled employees.) We had, in short, become comfortable with the ship and with our fellow passengers. We'd also finally relaxed, slept late and stopped thinking about the office.
On the last night, we bid our dinner companions farewell and met up with Bruce and his brood. We drank quite a bit, taking turns with our on-ship credit cards to pick up the rounds, and heard the interesting stories of connecting flights, jet lag, previous cruises, hometowns, families and jobs. Not the introductory, ass-sniffing obligatory snippets, but real conversations about real events. Mostly funny, some poignant, others run-of-the-mill chitchat filler, but all of them parts of the surprisingly pleasant melange of social interaction. Three hours later, we said our goodbyes to them as well and retired to our cabin.
On a cruise two years ago, Amy's parents sat at dinner with a mother and daughter originally from Japan. They had such a great time talking and hanging around the ship that they'd exchanged addresses and, just this past March, they received an invitation to the daughter's wedding in the Philippines. They sent their regrets only because they'd already scheduled the Alaska cruise during that time. Now, even if we had offered our address to any of our new friends, I wouldn't have expected to be invited to Lindsey's or Kimberly's wedding. We might've seen some cards around the holidays, at least this first year, or maybe an occasional e-mail exchange, but I doubt that we'd ever have called on them if we were visiting their part of the country. It was nice, though, for just a few days, to be?well, civilized. To enjoy polite conversation without any of the contentious, flashpoint topics like religion and politics that people seem to crave in "real" life. No one was there to argue; no one tried to convince anyone of anything. In our case, we were there to relax, maybe drink a bit and look at the pretty mountains; enjoying the company of strangers was an unexpected bonus. And, much to my surprise, I was able to refrain from cursing in public. As soon as someone else in a private conversation slipped in a naughty word, though, you can be sure that I took that as my license to cuss like a real sailor.
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